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‘The Tyranny of the Meritocracy’ by Lani Guinier

Lani Guinier reminds readers that education is a process where abilities are developed and intelligence is not innate but can grow.santa clara university school of law

We all understand the importance of college in the modern economy. This signal economic importance leads to the SAT becoming the sole difference between getting into a great school and potentially being set for life, or not. Students sweat the process. Families spend thousands to prepare children, and schools pride themselves on their students’ average SAT scores.

It’s time, writes Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, that we question not just the value of that one test, but frankly, the entire system that claims this test measures merit. “[W]e need to change our understanding of merit,” she says--it is too narrow. Her new book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy,’’ “propose[s] a new framework, one focused on advancing democratic rather than testocratic merit.” It is a scheme that reminds colleges that their duty “is to give students an educational experience in which merit is cultivated, not merely scored.”


The first half of the book details her critique of the current system, the main problem being that “the SAT still promises something it can’t deliver: a way to measure merit.” According to Guinier, research shows little correlation between SAT scores and first-year college grades. There is, however, a link between income, race, and test results. “If we can agree that the SAT, LSAT, and other standardized tests most reliably measure a student’s household income, ethnicity, and level of parental education,” says Guinier, “then can we see that reliance on such test scores narrows the student body to those who come from particular households.”

So, if the current ways we measure success and allow access to higher education doesn’t work as a true avenue for social mobility, we are faced with real questions: Do we admit that our system won’t provide social mobility or serve our democracy? And, if so, shouldn’t we be trying to figure out how to “move from admission to mission”? Guinier argues that we have created a new class of elites who believe they earned their place because they are the smartest. They are arrogant, have no understanding of the need for a larger good, and will not possess the skills to solve 21st-century problems.


Colleges (and our whole educational system) used to have three goals, according to Guinier’s argument: 1) democratic equality, 2) social efficiency, and 3) social mobility. The first two are public goods, the last individual and private. Today we only have the third. We are only serving customers and not society. Democratic merit (peer-collaboration, leadership, and drive), she argues, serves both individuals and society and so are better admissions standards.

In the book’s second half, Guinier examines models of success that should and could be expanded. One bright light is the Posse Foundation, which helps urban public high school students win merit scholarships to colleges. While it is a wonderful and dedicated organization, there are limits to its reach and impact. Since it was founded in 1989, Posse has sent 5,500 students to colleges with $680 million in scholarships. What attracts her is the way the group chooses its students. Rather than use a GPA or SAT, the organization looks at measures of leadership traits and interaction skills. Over the years Posse has found a direct relationship between these traits and graduation rates and success in college — a better and more useful predictor than SAT scores.


Central to Guinier’s notion of democratic merit is that intelligence is not static, nor is it deterministic. She reminds us that education is a process where abilities are developed and intelligence is not innate but can grow. Her models all point to one fact: “[T]heir aim was not to get the ‘right answer.’ Instead the goal was to understand how to get to the right answer.” And, because it is process-focused, it is teachable and learnable. So all students learn and they learn from each other as well as the teacher. No one is truly left behind.

She argues that we need to return to a focus on measuring character or characteristics and behaviors because they have an enormous impact on growth. Working with students to improve their behaviors, such as study habits, can have a real impact on outcomes. Getting students to see that they can change, that they are not destined to be their SAT score, matters.

Guinier’s book is not pessimistic, but rather hopeful for a better future. She ends with this sentence: “A culture shift can happen. It is happening. And, we need to work together to make it happen.”

Richard Greenwald is a professor and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His last book was “Labor Rising.’’